Toxic Microplastics Can be Absorbed by Skin, Study Finds

They’re in the ocean, the air, our drinking water and my cutting board. And we’re just starting to understand exactly how dangerous all those microplastics are. Less than five millimeters long, microplastics are the plastic fragments that end up everywhere. They get everywhere thanks to the degradation of larger garbage and debris, as well as microbeads from personal care products.

Not a lot is known yet about microplastics and how they will affect us. But we are starting to find them in some unsettling places, including our blood. And now, thanks to a recent study published in Environment International, we also know that toxic chemicals added to those microplastics can be absorbed by our skin.

Researches found that our skin could absorb up to eight percent of the exposure dose, with specific amounts varying.

Microplastics and Toxic Chemicals

“Many of these additives, particularly in the flame retardant and plasticizer categories, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been found to cause adverse health effects including: endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, hepatotoxicity and cancer,” explains the study.

Many countries have already banned some of these chemicals, but environmental contamination is a significant long-term problem. These chemicals don’t just disappear once they’re out in the world.

Only a tiny amount of the toxic flame retardants made it into the bloodstream in these studies. But researchers did find that sweaty skin absorbed more of the chemicals than dry skin. And ultimately, anything that’s increasing your body’s load of toxic chemicals isn’t a great thing.

“Overall, we experimentally confirm for the first time that human exposure via skin contact with microplastics containing PBDEs (as flame-retardant additives) contributes to the body burdens of these toxic chemicals,” explains the study.

Reporting from Medical News Today does highlight that the plastics tested aren’t really the kind to end up in our clothes or couches. And that’s of some comfort.

“They tested polyethylene and polypropylene — these aren’t typically the polymers that you would find in, say, a couch or clothing,” says non-study author Hanno Erythropel, PhD. lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment. “It doesn’t diminish the work… [but] you rarely wear polyethylene on your skin. Polyethylene is more of like your shopping bag,”

What’s Next?

One thing is for sure, the results of this study should lead to more research on microplastics. Additionally, these findings encourage scientists to explore less toxic options for flame retardation. It’s undeniably good that we have ways to keep things from catching on fire. But now we need to make sure that those chemical additives are safe for us to be exposed to.

Thankfully, Europe and the U.S. have already banned PBDEs for use in flame retardants. And while there’s still the matter of environmental pollution to deal with, that is a sizeable first step.

“These results provide important experimental evidence for regulators and policy makers to legislate for microplastics and safeguard public health against such exposure,” concludes the study.

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